Work, Part I: In Defense of Brass Polishing

“Six days shalt thou labour;” who would have thought that Protestants (with their acclaimed work ethic) needed reminding of that?

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Only Supernaturalists really see nature… To treat her as God or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see… this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes, and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you have ever thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss the half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character, not tamed (Heaven forbid), not sterilized. We shall still be able to recognize our old enemy, friend, playfellow, and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.

Over the last three years my wife and I have made a home in six different cities (thankfully the nomadic period of our life is pretty much over), which means, among other things, that I have visited more than my share of churches in the recent past. During those visits, the above passage from C.S. Lewis’s Miracles often came to mind, and for an unfortunate reason. The story of humanity being told from the many Evangelical Protestant pulpits I’ve encountered doesn’t “suit” me (as my grandmother would say). And to avoid the impression of arrogance and individualism, I don’t think it suits any of us, in so far as we are human.

According to the narrative I heard so often during our moves, the only thing that really matters (a great phrase that I’ll look at in more detail in Work Part II) is rescuing souls from Hell. Work and human activity are good, but ultimately temporal. It’s an idea captured well by the question “Since everything’s going down anyway, why polish the brass on the Titanic?”

The conclusion of that story is a flimsy and disappointing anthropology, like a lawnmower made of smoke—it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance against one real blade of grass. Why? Because every once in awhile we get the sense that something lasting, something good of itself, something real is happening when we husband a garden, enjoy a fine meal with our friends, build a straight and sturdy fence, or polish the brass. Our intuition inclines us to invest in, cultivate, and refine the raw materials of creation, i.e. to do the stuff of culture. Treating this world as “merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women” doesn’t fit our experience.

The odd thing about the contempt for creation and culture I’ve heard from so many Evangelical Protestants of late is that it contrasts starkly with the explanation of reality given to us in the Story of Christianity, which not only predicts those glimpses of the eternal in the midst of the ordinary (e.g. gardening, friendship, and fence building), but validates them as activities of great import for the life to come.

Christianity’s Jewish heritage claims that God works, and that man, being made in His likeness, is to do the same. St. Paul goes further, arguing that plain old, everyday labor has the potential to impact the coming kingdom. Romans 8 makes it clear that men are not the only creatures in need of and assured of redemption, but that, as Lewis points out, creation itself was subjected to “vanity”. The message is that everything is perverted, and, one day, everything will be reconciled. But until then, we have been given the task of reconciliation.

Man is busted. Yes, but so are bears, babies, bananas, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes, and toads. Man’s purpose is not to try and keep it together just long enough to be whisked away as the last piece of terrain is scorched under his feet, but to participate through the work of culture in a divine and lasting story in which man, begun in a garden, is destined for a city. Jeremiah’s words to the nation of Judah soon after their capture by the Babylonians are perhaps the clearest example of the eternal significance of “earthly” work. Keep in mind that the prophet is speaking to a people who are living in Babylon, which in the Biblical narrative symbolizes the city of Satan, the den of iniquity.

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. (Chapter 29: 4-7; emphasis added)

Our humanity inclines us to the work of culture, to polish the brass. Christianity tells us that our humanity is our essence, not our disease. And in my experience, that is a merry meeting.

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